January 08, 2009

Good luck charms: Washington's nose and llama fetuses

With luck, I'll be running the Boston Marathon in April. It's not so much the marathon I need luck for, rather surviving training and staying injury-free. I try to keep the level of limb-pounding abuse low enough to keep me out of the physical therapist's office and let me show up at the starting line but high enough not to send my body into shock as I work toward the finish line. It's always a bit of a balancing act, and when I find something that works, I put it into my permanent bag of training tricks.

About four marathons ago I adopted a ritual to bring me luck. Between the first day of training and the last I must find at least 26 cents, heads up, while out on a run. Coins found any other time don't count, nor does face-down currency (which I'm allowed to pick up and toss back down and hope I find it, face-up, on my next run). If I find 26 good luck cents, I take that as a sign that I will make it to the start and I will complete the 26 miles.

Sometimes I find much more than 26 cents over my four months of training -- I once found a face-up dollar bill -- and sometimes I just squeak by, finding my last needed penny a few days before the race. Once, while out on an 18-miler, I found a heads-up quarter and a heads-up penny within a few feet of each other. Talk about your good omens! I carried those coins in my fuel belt on race day, felt awesome, turned in my best marathon performance, finished fourth in my age group, and qualified for Boston. Superstition works for me.

Today was Day 24 of my Boston training schedule, and it was a lucky day indeed. My run was nothing to write home about; it was cold, I was slow, I had to dodge more than the usual number of texting drivers, and I couldn't stop thinking about places I'd rather be, like in a Jacuzzi. But then I saw, poking through some muddy snow, a battered, quarter-size disc. I picked it up, spit on it, and after some rubbing made out George Washington's prominent probiscus in profile. Eureka! Not even a month down, and all I need to find between now and mid-April is one penny. I'm thinking God's trying to tell me something good, like, You're gettin' old girl, but you've got a few more in you.

My coin thing may sound weird, but it's tame compared to some good luck traditions practiced around the world. Like in Bolivia, where dried llama fetus is a popular talisman.

I was in La Paz, Bolivia's capital, and I climbed up steep Calle Sagarnaga to Calle Linares, known as Witches' Street, where “witches” in wide, bell-shaped taffeta skirts and bowler hats sit at stalls and try to tempt superstitious customers with sacks of amulets to repel evil and bring good fortune. The witches had stacks of neon-colored soaps; candles shaped like stars, birds and alpacas; soapstone figurines of Inca gods; unlabeled, tar-sealed bottles of homemade aphrodisiacs. And heaps of deep brown, dried llama fetuses that looked like the skeletons of giant, prehistoric birds.

The witches explained that nearly every Bolivian family buries a llama fetus, a sullu, under its house, often at the threshold, to keep evil from entering. Workers at Bolivian construction projects want assurance that a llama fetus, complete with a witch’s or soothsayer’s blessing, has been buried at the site before the men will pick up their tools.

I watched a vendor wrap a fetus for a Bolivian customer. She blessed the sullu, laid it on a cloth atop a pile of bark and plant material, and tied a thick strand of dyed, multicolor llama wool around its thin, brittle neck. The customer bowed slightly before picking up his precious package of good luck insurance.

Hmmm... I wonder if I could attach a llama fetus to my fuel belt...